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Personal Stories

Paul Orfalea

By: Jill Lauren, M.A.

In September 1970, Paul Orfalea, just out of college, borrowed enough money to open his first photocopy shop in Isla Vista, the campus community of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Paul, who had trouble with every subject in school, is the founder and chairperson of Kinko's Inc. He has an incredible ability to understand his customers and to give them the services they need. Paul manages Kinko's from the company's world headquarters in California.

Paul Orfalea: "In second grade, I was in a Catholic school with 40 or 50 kids in my class. We were supposed to learn to read prayers and match letter blocks to the letters in the prayers. By April or May, I still didn't know the alphabet and couldn't read. I memorized the prayers so the nun thought I was reading. Finally, she figured out that I didn't even know my alphabet, and I can remember her expression of total shock that I had gotten all the way through the second grade without her knowing this.

My parents offered my brother and sister $50 to teach me the alphabet, but that didn't work. So I flunked second grade. I had the same nun again, and she was mean. She paddled me for two years, but I still didn't learn the alphabet or how to read.

After that, my mother had me tested everywhere, at this college, that clinic. For two years they thought I couldn't read because I had bad muscles in my eyes. I went to an eye doctor to do eye exercises. Then I went to a speech teacher who thought I had a lazy tongue because I switched my R's and W's.

Every summer, I went to summer school, and during the school year I was in every little special group. I was in the speech group, the corrective posture group, the purple reading group, the green reading group. In third grade, the only word I could read was "the". I used to keep track of where the group was reading by following from one 'the' to the next.

Finally, my mother found a famous remedial reading teacher who knew I needed to learn phonetics and who understood my dyslexia. By seventh and eighth grade, I still had barely learned how to read. I wasn't too worried about it then because I somehow knew I'd have my own business one day, and I figured I'd hire someone to read to me.

My parents never made me feel stupid. They were very nurturing and didn't emphasize grades. To them, it was important that I knew something about a subject, could apply this knowledge, and could discuss it intelligently. My best subject was current events, and we were always talking about this at home. I had the perfect parents, which was great because by ninth grade, I had flunked again. I never liked the idea of being a double flunky.

By the time I was 15 or 16, I could get by in class with reading. But I could never spell. I was a woodshop major in high school, and my typical report card was two C's, three D's, and an F. I just got used to it.

I always worked after high school, and one job was at my dad's factory. Once, they gave me a job picking orders, which was kind of cool. I really wanted to do this job until somebody said, "Don't let him to do that-he can't even read." That was really devastating, and I actually quit my dad's factory.

When I graduated from high school, I had a 1.2 grade point average. I was eighth from the bottom of my class of 1,500 students. To be honest, I don't even know how seven people got below me.

Everyone in my family and all my parents' friends had their own businesses. So, for me, college was just for fun because I knew I was going to have my own business. In college, I majored in business and 'loopholes.' I knew who all the easy teachers were. Once, I had to take a literature class in which we had to read 13 books. That's like a lifetime of reading for me! So, to get by, I read Cliff Notes and watched great plays on TV.

In my investment strategies class, my teacher almost failed me because I made so many spelling errors on his tests. When he found out I had LD, he announced to the class that I was 'on the brink of brilliancy' because he looked at my ideas instead of the spelling. The students were impressed after that, and they thought I saw the world a little differently.

While I was in college, I rented a little garage for $100 a month on the main road of campus, which was the perfect location for my business. I sold notebooks, pens, pencils, and had a small copying machine. I made $1,000 some days.

My reading was still poor and I had no mechanical ability, so I thought that anybody who worked for me could do the job better. I wanted to make sure my employees were happy and that they would continue working for me. I felt that if my coworkers were happy, they'd work harder. The business grew, and I even sent my coworkers into the dorms to sell notebooks and pens. The idea came from seeing the need. The store name, Kinko's, is from the nickname my friends gave me because I have curly hair.

My business continued to expand based on the needs of the customers and the suggestions of my co-workers. We talk to each other, and we give each other ideas. There are now over 800 Kinko's stores worldwide. The stores that make the most money have the best morale and the happiest customers. I care more about the people who service the machines than the machines themselves.

Though reading is still difficult for me, I do like readers. I like the written language because I like photocopying. I believe in double-spacing, since it helps my business!

Recently, my wife was reading a short story to me, and it was very enjoyable listening to it. It was all about symbolism and clouds. When she was reading, we could stop and talk about what it meant and it was nice. I really wish I was a good reader. I would like to enjoy reading and books. I regret not having that ability. The newspapers are the only thing I read, which I love because I am a current events junkie.

When I talk to college students about all of this, I tell them to work with their strengths, not their weaknesses. If at first you're not good in reading, do something else. Go where you are strong.

Trust what you see, rather than what you hear. And don't take life so seriously — just enjoy it."

Best School Memory:

"When my professor commented on my 'brilliancy'."

Worst School Memory:

"Oh man, there are so many!"

Reflective questions

  1. Have you ever tried to cover up that you didn't know something, instead of asking for help? Why? What was the result? Would you do the same thing again?
  2. Paul says that he had very supportive parents. How do your parents show their support?
  3. Paul got his ideas for a successful business by looking around and seeing what people needed. Are you an entrepreneur like Paul is? Do you invent things or have creative ideas about helping people? What are your ideas?

Elizabeth Verdick (Editor) — excerpted from "Succeeding with LD: 20 True Stories About Real People with LD" — Free Spirit Publishing; (February 1997)